O’Connor is accused of being slow to act on bovine tb – but Nats have been slow to raise questions, too

The Nats are accusing Biosecurity Minister Damien O’Connor of being slow to act on a bovine tuberculosis outbreak in Hawke’s Bay.  Is it a fair cop?

OSPRI confirmed an outbreak in Hawke’s Bay in April last year, but a disease management response wasn’t put in place until October, National agriculture spokesman Todd Muller contends.

There have been more positive tests since then and one third of Hawke’s Bay will be under stock movement controls from March 1.

“Responses like this need to be fronted quickly for the sake of our valuable beef and dairy sector. The Minister needs to be across his portfolio and ensure these issues don’t sneak past him.”

But whether O’Connor has been caught napping depends on when he first learned (a) about the bovine tb and its rate of spread and (b) what was being done to deal with the outbreak – and when he should have first learned those things.

It seems he has known about the situation in Hawke’s Bay since October last year but the outbreak was known to OSPRI, the animal disease management agency which runs the national TB free programme, since April last year – six months earlier.

So was OSPRI being secretive?

Not really.  It has set up a dedicated webpage, which is regularly updated with information on disease management activity and upcoming possum control work.

In July last year, one of these updates said there were three infected herds in Hawke’s Bay – two in the Waitara Valley, the other in the Tutira Area. DNA typing of the TB
organism indicated the infections had come from a wildlife source.

The herds were being managed closely by OSPRI’s Disease Management Team.  TB-infected animals were being slaughtered.

OSPRI bosses have been coy, nevertheless.

An article in Dairy News last October, headed OSPRI’s new energy underpins farming, is a puff piece written by Steve Stuart, the agency’s chief executive.

He said OSPRI had been working with the Ministry for Primary Industries during its overhaul of NZ’s biosecurity framework to ensure a robust response to any disease incursion or threat.

Animal health and disease management is imprinted in OSPRI’s DNA. The eradication of bovine tuberculosis (TB) has been part of OSPRI’s skills since it evolved from the Animal Health Board, and the TBfree eradication programme is recognised as world-leading.

A carefully balanced combination of TB testing, possum extermination and stock movement controls has brought infected herd numbers down from 1700 at the peak in the mid-1990s to about 30 today. While that seems like a manageable problem, a far greater risk exists in TB-infected possums passing the disease between wildlife and livestock.

Any retreat from a programme of coordinated possum extermination could easily cause TB to come flooding back, as happened in the 1980s when funding was cut because the problem was believed beaten.

And:.

When the last herds have been cleared, within the next decade (by 2026), and TB eradicated in possums (by 2040), NZ will be recognised as the only country to have eradicated bovine TB. That’s projected to happen in 2055 and will rank as a world first.

There was no mention of an outbreak of bovine TB in Hawke’s Bay.

The first mainstream news report found by Point of Order, headed Controls put in place to control bovine TB outbreak in Hawke’s Bay,  was posted by Stuff on February 11 and said:

A bovine TB outbreak has occurred in a number of cattle in Hawke’s Bay.

The disease has been detected in 29 animals in nine herds near the Napier-Taupo Road since April 2019. One herd has since been cleared. Wildlife surveillance and DNA strain-typing indicates the source of infection is from wildlife north of the area.

OSPRI, which runs the national TBfree programme, has expanded its regional office in Napier to lead a response and will control stock movements in the vicinity to prevent any spread of disease.

As an additional precautionary action, Stuff reported,

  • Ospri would expand the livestock movement control area in Hawke’s Bay from March 1 to prevent any potential spread of disease;
  • Staff at OSPRI’s regional office in Napier will hold information days later in February.

Damien O’Connor was quoted in the Stuff report as saying he had met with OSPRI earlier that week and was told the outbreak had been caused by the failure of a buffer zone on the edges of the existing movement control area.

“I’ve asked them to look at all the buffer zones in place right across New Zealand to ensure this won’t happen again,” he said.

“This latest outbreak is disappointing but the reality is TB has been in New Zealand since the 1950s. Such flare ups have occurred from time to time and should not undermine the long term target of eradication across all New Zealand,” O’Connor said

This implied O’Connor had found out about the outbreak only a day or so earlier.

But in Parliament yesterday answering questions on behalf of the Minister, Shane Jones said O’Connor had been informed early last October “of a small increase in tuberculosis (TB) cases in the Hawke’s Bay”.

Hansard records this and the follow-up questions:

Todd Muller: If the Minister has known since last October, how has this gone from a first detection in April 2019 to the largest outbreak of TB in Hawke’s Bay in the last 20 years?

Hon SHANE JONES: That is an exaggeration. The Minister was further advised on 28 January that this increase was considered a very small cluster of bovine TB infection. It’s important that scaremongering not be allowed to plague this House, as this is not considered as an outbreak. There is a small cluster of bovine infections, and Operational Solutions for Primary Industries New Zealand (OSPRI) is extending their TB-free programme to manage and return Hawke’s Bay to TB-free status.

Lawrence Yule: Why is OSPRI waiting until 1 March to expand the livestock movement control area in Hawke’s Bay to cover approximately a third of the Hawke’s Bay region?

Hon SHANE JONES: I am advised that Hawke’s Bay is a part of the country known already to have TB, and OSPRI is working with the best available information, and any suggestion that panic should set in is unworthy of contributions to this House.

Lawrence Yule: Why did it take six months for OSPRI to arrange trapping and poisoning operations surrounding a property that had nine affected animals?

Hon SHANE JONES: As I said, this is the not the case where we should allow scaremongering to inform these issues. Possum control operations have been brought forward and planned. Whether or not there were problems with access to adjoining blocks of land is not something unusual when the Crown, through the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), deals with the occasional outbreak of TB.

Kieran McAnulty: Is the Minister aware that despite the fact that since the early 2000s cases of TB have gone down from 1,700, to 26 last year, there have been numerous clusters of infections over the last decade, all of which have been successfully managed?

Hon SHANE JONES: There’s a modest mop-up being addressed in the Hawke’s Bay, but to suggest that things are worsening is, unfortunately, a lame attempt at scaremongering, and it will not succeed.

Todd Muller: How can he honestly stand in this House and say that first detection last April, six months of no poisoning, expanding to nine farms, and now, on 1 March, there’s a no movement zone across 500 properties in Hawke’s Bay—the largest in that region for 20 years—is just minor and something we shouldn’t be concerned about as a Parliament?

Hon SHANE JONES: This is not a situation—although the member may resemble it—of the pea weevil. This is a problem that is being dealt with in the context of MPI’s services. Local farmers have been regularly updated, and it is quite unbecoming for members to try and generate political capital from scaremongering.

Muller later released the statement accusing O’Connor of being slow to act.   

But when did Muller and the news media first find out about the outbreak and when should they have raised concerns?

 Information about the outbreak on OSPRI’s website says bovine tuberculosis has been detected in cattle herds in Hawke’s Bay “recently”) and steers readers to various sites for more information, including a press statement dated February 12.

But an OSPRI press statement dated October 23 2019 publicly advised:

TB has been detected in several cattle herds in Hawke’s Bay since April this year, and a full disease management response is underway.

The confirmed infected herds are in the Waitara Valley and Matahorua in the northern area of Hawke’s Bay, bordering on the native forests and wildlife reservoir of the Central North Island.

All cases were detected as result of on-farm livestock TB tests. Infection has most likely been caused by contact with TB-infected possums. This is indicated by DNA analysis of the TB strain type, and by information on livestock management and stock movement data from NAIT.

The infected herds are all under close management, with tight restrictions on animal movement and intensive TB testing to ensure any other infected animals are identified and slaughtered as quickly as possible.

Herd owners on properties neighbouring the infected herds have been directly notified. Disease managers and extension staff are working with farmers in and around areas of infection risk are being contacted to organise TB tests for their herds at the earliest opportunity.

Muller tells us in his press statement that TB is a devastating disease and it is important outbreak responses are timely and thorough.

“New Zealand has been working towards eradicating TB for decades and the last National Government invested heavily in achieving this, with an extra $69.8 million of funding provided in 2016 and the Predator Free 2050 plan kicked off, which would prevent pests like possums and ferrets spreading the disease.

“Responses like this need to be fronted quickly for the sake of our valuable beef and dairy sector. The Minister needs to be across his portfolio and ensure these issues don’t sneak past him.”

But it looks like Muller could have raised questions about the management of the outbreak a few months earlier, too.

 

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